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'Blue Bayou' Devastates With A Story Of A Stepfather Facing Deportation

In <em>Blue Bayou</em>, Kathy (Alicia Vikander), Jessie (Sydney Kowalske) and Antonio (Justin Chon) face an uncertain future when Antonio becomes threatened with deportation.
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In Blue Bayou, Kathy (Alicia Vikander), Jessie (Sydney Kowalske) and Antonio (Justin Chon) face an uncertain future when Antonio becomes threatened with deportation.

Blue Bayou moved me a lot more than I expected or maybe even wanted it to. Scene by scene, this story of a Korean American adoptee facing deportation is frequently heavy-handed and overwrought. There were moments when I was certain I loathed it — only for it to reel me back in. By the end, I found myself wiping away furious tears, a little angry perhaps at the filmmakers for their sledgehammer tactics, but much angrier at the injustice of what they show us: an immigration system that can tear families apart.

The separation of families by government agencies like ICE has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, but Blue Bayou tells a different kind of immigration story. It was written and directed by Justin Chon, who also stars as Antonio, a New Orleans tattoo artist. Antonio is happily married to a nurse named Kathy, played by Alicia Vikander, and he's also an adoring stepfather to her 7-year-old daughter, Jessie. He and Kathy are also expecting a child. But their domestic bliss is derailed one day when they get into a heated altercation with Jessie's biological dad, Ace, who abandoned Kathy and Jessie years ago but now wants to see his daughter. Ace happens to be a cop with a racist partner who happens to be on the scene. Tensions escalate, and in the scuffle that follows, Antonio is arrested.

Rather than being released after a few hours in jail, Antonio is turned over to ICE, which begins digging into his background. It turns out that when Antonio was adopted in the '80s, his U.S. citizenship was never formalized. A judge orders his deportation to Korea. Not helping Antonio's case is his criminal record, which includes two felony charges for motorcycle theft.

This isn't the first time Chon has made a movie that puts the struggles of working-class Korean Americans front and center. His previous efforts include the black-and-white drama Gook, named after the anti-Asian slur and set during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. He followed that movie with Ms. Purple, about two estranged siblings in L.A.'s Koreatown.

Aside from its Louisiana setting, Blue Bayou feels a lot like those earlier movies with its jagged handheld camerawork and emotionally raw performances. I've rarely seen Vikander this forceful and immediate; it's her strongest work in years. And Chon slips effortlessly into the role of a guy who's had a tough upbringing — his adoptive father abused him horribly — and is now about to lose the people he loves.

While Chon's acting is terrific, his writing could use a little more discipline. There's a moving but clumsy subplot featuring the wonderful Linh-Dan Pham as Parker, a Vietnamese American woman who befriends Antonio. While their scenes together deepen the movie's understanding of Asian immigrant experiences, Parker gets one too many symbolism-heavy monologues, and her terminal cancer diagnosis feels like one twist of the knife too far. It's not the script's only contrivance: Antonio has a friend who happens to be an ICE agent and tries to help him out.

Where Blue Bayou undeniably succeeds is in its portrait of the strength and the fragility of families in situations where the decks are stacked against them. While I recoiled at times from the sheer unrelenting misery of Antonio's experience as he faces setback after setback, by the end I appreciated the movie's refusal to soft-pedal his journey. There's a core of emotional honesty to this movie that survives even its more manipulative impulses. It leaves you with a devastating sense of just how violent it is to tear someone away from the only family — and the only country — they've ever known.

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Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.